Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly
Year in Music 2019

From Queen to Michael Jackson, Why Biopics Boosted Streams Regardless Of Their Subjects

In 2019, a handful of celebratory biopics and revelatory docuseries put certain legacy acts back in the spotlight, for better or worse. While some of these were met with joy and others with horror, these releases had one consistent effect no matter how troubling their revelations: streaming of the subjects’ music increased.

Last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody (which grossed over $900 million globally) delivered Queen’s hit-filled catalog to a new generation -- and was embraced. Though the film opened in November 2018, the band’s discography rode the wave of its renewed popularity well into 2019. At the top of the year, Universal Music Group announced that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was officially the most-streamed song of the 20th century, having racked up over 1.6 billion streams worldwide, according to UMG. The rock classic had always been a behemoth, but Rami Malek’s Academy Award-winning performance gave it new life.

The film had an impact well beyond just its title track: In the six months following the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen’s on-demand music streams tripled, from 588 million to 1.9 billion. Sales, too, had a 483% increase from the previous year. So colossal was the Bohemian Rhapsody bump that, at midyear, the band occupied the top two spots on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart, besting contemporary acts like Imagine Dragons and Panic! at the Disco.

At the same time, Elton John’s hits collection Diamonds occupied the No. 4 slot thanks to a biopic boost from the 2019 musical Rocketman. In June, the set also catapulted to No. 7 on the Billboard 200, making it John’s 20th top 10 album. While Rocketman didn’t quite reach the commercial heights of Bohemian Rhapsody, it still grossed a respectable $195 million worldwide.

“I’ve probably had the greatest year of my career at 72 years of age,” John, who was also on a 300-date farewell tour and released a New York Times best-selling autobiography this year, recently told Billboard. “I’m thrilled.”

Even Netflix’s 2019 Mötley Crüe flick, The Dirt, boosted the band’s streams by 329%, despite poor reviews. (Netflix rarely shares viewership numbers, though in April its chief content officer announced plans to be more transparent going forward.) But Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman proved lucrative enough -- at the box office and on streaming services -- that there will likely be movie studios continuing to bet on rock nostalgia in 2020 and beyond. Two projects already slated for release next year include the David Bowie musical Stardust and an Aretha Franklin biopic starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.

On the other end of the spectrum, two highly controversial documentary series -- Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, which aired in January, and HBO’s Leaving Neverland, broadcast in March -- drew new scrutiny to Kelly’s and Michael Jackson’s reputations. In the midst of troubling accusations of sexual abuse, activists across social media demanded that listeners #MuteRKelly, and several radio stations pulled Jackson’s music. But even these controversial docuseries appear to have boosted streaming of both artists’ music.

Surviving R. Kelly actually spurred a 116% increase in Kelly’s streams on the last day (Jan. 5) of its three-day release. And in the week ending Jan. 10, two of his biggest catalog hits, “Ignition (Remix)” and “I Believe I Can Fly,” briefly returned to Billboard’s R&B Digital Song Sales chart. Similarly, Jackson’s fan base has been vocal on social media about continuing to stream and purchase his music as a way of maintaining his once-positive public image. During the 31-week period after the documentary aired, on-demand streams of Jackson’s catalog increased by 22.1%, outpacing the industry’s 21.8% growth. And at Halloween, “Thriller” still benefited from its seasonal bump, returning to the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 44.

Despite the looming threat of so-called “cancel culture” -- in which fans on social media deem an artist or band to be over -- these numbers suggest that not even recasting an icon in a new light for a new audience can bring down a hit. In the digital age, listeners are much more inclined to continue celebrating a legacy artist, rather than banish one to obscurity.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.

2019 Billboard Year in Music